Rappelling Death at Pinnacles National Monument

by Jody Langford

Mitchell Haydon (16) from Livermore, California, died on May 15, 1976 while descending the overhanging west face of Tombstone Rock in Pinnacles National Monument. He and his 27 year-old guide R.B. Fischer had reached the top of Tombstone at 12:15 PM. This was their first climb of the day. On their approach to the rock they examined the 130 foot west face and decided to descend that route.

They doubled a 300 foot, 9mm perlon rope for their rappel line. Haydon went first, using a brake-bar system attached to several coils of 1-inch tubular webbing wrapped around his waist. He backed up this system by tying a Prusik knot to the rappel lines above the brake with a 5mm perlon sling which was attached to a second 1-inch tubular webbing wrapped twice around his waist.

Soon after he disappeared from sight below the lip of the overhang he began shouting to Fischer for help. Fischer, because of his location, was unable to hear clearly and couldn't figure out what was wrong. The time was 12:55 PM. A hiker on the trail below heard Haydon shout, "My Prusik is stuck!" The hiker, Hugh Alderson, tried to relay instructions from Fischer to Haydon, but Haydon was unable to loosen the knot and ease the strain on his waist and chest. He shouted down to Alderson to go for help.

Fischer managed to gain the bottom of the rock at 1:10 PM by downclimbing the regular route unprotected. He tried to communicate with Haydon who was now hanging limp and foaming at the mouth. It is fairly certain that Haydon lapsed into unconsciousness by 1:10 PM, 10-15 minutes after getting stuck. Fischer's observations substantiate the coroner's autopsy report which revealed that Haydon died from suffocation caused by aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs. This was due to chest constriction. Another 30 minutes elapsed before rescue efforts managed to lower Haydon to the ground where CPR was unsuccessfully applied.

Analysis

It is not known exactly what caused Haydon's predicament. He may have experienced difficulty passing the lip of the overhang. This is where a trailing Prusik knot usually escapes the climber's grasp and jams. However, Haydon was several feet below this point when he got hung up. There is reason to believe that he may have stopped momentarily to untangle rappel lines below him. The ropes had to be untangled about 15-20 feet above the ground during the rescue effort. If this was the case, then Haydon may have set his Prusik while he accomplished this task. He possibly exhausted himself in strenuous efforts to release the knot and then panicked when the pain became severe and breathing difficult. This was when he called down to the hiker for help.

Several factors contributed to this tragedy:
(1) The use of only a waist loop to support the body weight during the rappel.
(2) The use of a Prusik Knot back-up to safeguard the rappel.
(3) The novice climber's inability to relieve the strain on his waist and chest.
(4) The lack of sufficient equipment by the second climber to effect a quick rescue.

The use of a carabiner friction brake for descending a rappel line is an accepted and proven technique. Keep in mind that this was 1976. Attaching this brake system to a waist loop ONLY is not commonly practiced. This method apparently was preferred by Fischer and he taught it to his students. Its main advantage seems to be that of simplicity - the wrong 'advantage' when safety is key. Most climbers prefer a seat harness to ease the strain on the waist. One has only to hang free a few seconds from a waist loop to realize that the strain on the waist and thoracic region can be very painful and breathing made extremely difficult.

Several techniques have been devised to safeguard against some of the hazards inherent in rappelling. The simple expedient of tying a Prusik knot to the rope and clipping it to the waist loop protects against accidental detachment from the carabiner brake and losing control of the rappel. It also increases security at the end of an unknown rappel.
However, ITS USE IS A QUESTIONABLE PRACTICE. It inhibits freedom of motion. The knot can tighten up out of reach. There is also a real difficulty in negotiating overhangs and the knot is virtually impossible to loosen under tension. Also, it must grip instantly in the event of a free fall or the rope can suffer damage from the extreme friction and heat generated.

Haydon was a novice, having been climbing for only two months. He was not a strong climber according to Fischer and apparently did not exhibit a high degree of natural ability. Although Haydon may have received previous instructions on how to ease the strain on the waistline and release the Prusik Knot, he obviously had difficulty doing this. Tension must be eased within ten minutes or unconsciousness can result. As strength subsides, or if one relaxes momentarily, the waist loops can creep up on both sides of the chest. In this position, it is possible to breath in but difficult to exhale. The increased pressure inside the chest cuts off blood flow back to the heart which in turn restricts the flow of blood to the brain. Because of the restriction around the chest, he couldn't cough or eject the stomach contents out. He breathed in and sucked the stomach contents into his lungs.

Assuming the climber is physically able, there are several simple and relatively easy ways to ease the strain and pressure on the waist or chest when not wearing a seat harness. One is to bend the knee, take the slack line below the waist, wrap several coils around the foot and stand up. A climber can also turn upside down to transfer the weight to his hip, and by hooking a leg behind the tight rope can hold this position for some time.

There are two extremes concerning equipment. Some climbers are swathed in ropes and hardware. Others over-simplify. Somewhere in between is a safe medium where climbers can be expedient but still allow for an emergency and the possible need to improvise. Although many rappels can be accomplished with one rope, it is advisable for the last person down to have an extra rope. This assumes, of course, that the last person down is the most experienced and the one to whom a mishap is less likely to happen.


About the author: This article was written by Jim Langford with editing and additions by Jody Langford (jmlangford). Jim Langford was a climbing ranger for the NPS for many years.

Downloaded 11/2002 from: http://www.rockclimbing.com/articles/view.php?ID=86
Reproduced here with permission from the author

This accident was also described in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, 1977, p.19-20, and in Off Belay, December 1976.